A Pilgrim in Queens
Halle Goldblatt removes her shoes as a sign of respect and walks barefoot down a well-worn path threading through a thicket of Hebrew-inscribed headstones. She’s in a line of visitors snaking across a holy cemetery in a quiet neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.
They all are waiting on this cool morning to pray inside a roofless mausoleum—known as the Ohel—that houses the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last spiritual leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, an ultra-orthodox Judaism that emphasizes worldwide outreach and a return to traditional practices. Rabbi Schneerson, who died in 1994 and is known simply as “the Rebbe,” is credited with guiding his followers through post-Holocaust struggles.
Many of the people walking toward his grave are men with thick beards and black hats or women clad modestly in long skirts and head scarves. They are Lubavitchers, some of whom believe the Rebbe was the Messiah who will return one day and bring them redemption.Others are less-observant Jews, or even non-Jews, who have traveled here seeking inspiration and blessings.
The grassless ground is blanketed with scraps of paper, each bearing a fragment of prayer offered up to the Rebbe and then torn to shreds. Like the thousands of other pilgrims who journey to the Ohel each year, Goldblatt clutches a hand-scribbled note to recite aloud at the tomb.
But the Pitt religious studies major from Northeast Ohio is not here just seeking spiritual uplift. Goldblatt also is looking at the site through an academic lens. After she prays, she’ll interview fellow visitors about their experiences at the Ohel as research for her senior thesis about modern Chasidic pilgrimages.
Goldblatt’s visit to the cemetery occurred last fall, when she was enrolled in a Pitt seminar taught by religious studies professor emeritus Fred W. Clothey. The seminar’s students explored the motif of religious pilgrimage. “Pilgrimage is one of the oldest forms of ritual,” says Clothey, a pioneer of ethnographic fieldwork and documentation of religious practice in India. “But it has come back into vogue.”
Perhaps nowhere is this trend more apparent than at the Ohel, where people from all walks of life come in search of transcendence, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Goldblatt is still trying to make sense of this phenomenon as a social scientist-in-training. She already grasps it on a higher level.
As she reaches the monument, Goldblatt is overcome by the palpable sense of the Rebbe’s soul. “I had the same feeling the first time I went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem,” she says. “It is a spiritual presence you just know is there.”
Goldblatt whispers her thoughts to the Rebbe and then rips up her paper. Her words flutter down to rest around his monument, where they join the endless stream of prayers flowing from this world to an unknown beyond. —Jennifer Bails
The Art of Medicine
In the recesses of an art museum, doctors-in-training examine a painting. At first glance, the painting looks simple—a sailboat, blue sky, waves. But as the Pitt medical students observe the artwork more closely, they notice complex traits and textures.
“Look at the woman,” one student says, pointing at two shadowy figures in the sailboat.
“What makes you think it’s a woman?” another student asks.
“It could be a peasant,” someone suggests.
“My initial response was that it was a man and his son,” another adds.
The group’s varied interpretations make one thing clear: The painted figures cannot be clearly identified. They’re blurred like the waves, two bodies caught in the motion of the sea. The sense of movement contrasts with the static sky, a rigid plank of blue background.
While the medical students discuss the painting, the chief curator of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, Louise Lippincott, listens. The group is encountering some of the complexities of evaluating art. She’s aware, too, that these students will someday, as doctors, have to detect subtle features of their patients’ bodies and personalities, which may hold clues to diagnoses. Through art, they’re broadening their approach to doctoring.
That’s the idea behind a four-week course for Pitt medical students. The elective, “Art and Medicine,” is a joint venture of the Carnegie Museum of Art, The Andy Warhol Museum, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Back at the museum, Lippincott discloses the painting’s history. Created in 1911, Sailing is the earliest surviving painting of American artist Edward Hopper. It was first shown in New York City at the 1913 Armory Show, a pivotal event that Lippincott calls a “defining moment in American art.” The avant-garde exhibition introduced Cubist, Expressionist, Futurist, and Fauvist art to the United States. Sailing was purchased at the show—the first painting Hopper ever sold.
Student Rami Zanoun wasn’t too impressed with the painting before, but now he’s interested. Lippincott points out that his change in opinion parallels how doctors might revise their diagnostic ideas based on new observations about individual patients.
To further examine Sailing, Lippincott shines bright lights onto the canvas to illuminate the artist’s brush strokes. A strange oval appears in the center. A scientific ultraviolet test will help decipher what it is. In an adjacent room, an assistant positions the painting on an easel, and Zanoun and the other students crowd around it. Lippincott draws a hospital-like curtain behind everyone. Then, ultraviolet lights zap on.
“Whoa!” Zanoun and the other students gasp. In the ultraviolet glow, the artist’s self-portrait beams out from the sailboat, a glaring white visage that looks positively ghost-like. The artist sketched his portrait, then later painted the sailboat over it. The ultraviolet light reveals the underlying paint. In silence, everyone stares at today’s lesson: There’s much that’s hidden—and worth exploring—under the surface of initial observations. —Cara J. Hayden
The Other “O”
The elegant cloister of the Frick Fine Arts Building is crowded with visitors, but nobody is looking at the gallery walls. Instead, they’re chattering about The Original magazine, which is being celebrated at this gathering. Student publications aren’t usually so polished, yet this one looks like it came straight off a SoHo newsstand.
In the commotion, magazine staffers Ben Filio and Elana Schlenker—who are also Pitt students—barely have room to move. Expecting only 60 guests, they probably should be worried about the appetizers running out. But looking at the swarm of 300 faces, they share the same thought: We did it!
This release party for the inaugural issue of The Original is exceeding expectations, just like the magazine itself. Party guests flip through stories about local musicians, comedy troupes, the arts scene, and lots of interesting people. The magazine puts a focus on the creative activities of students and tries to appeal to a broad audience. Plenty of the party guests take time to sit and read some of the magazine’s content, which includes an article on sorority recruitment and a piece called “20 Things To Do in the Southside.” By the expressions on readers’ faces, Filio and Schlenker know that their hard work has paid off.
The year before, Schlenker, a senior marketing and studio arts major, conceived the idea for a biannual publication featuring innovative design, creative writing, and an emphasis on the arts. She began searching for advertisers, applying for grants, and asking other students to help out. Filio, then a junior sociology and political science major, joined her as a photographer and helped to shape the budding publication.
As the gallery gala rolls on, the celebrants see things anew in the magazine’s pages. There’s an edgy quality that values photojournalism and striking visuals and design. In the spirit of the iconic Life magazine, The Original doesn’t just use pictures to complement the writing; the photographs themselves are often standout moments.
Since that 2007 gallery event, the student-run magazine has published two more issues and won design awards from the nonprofit organization College Media Advisers as well as a coveted Seed Award from Pittsburgh’s Sprout Fund, a foundation that supports grassroots community projects. Schlenker (A&S ’07) graduated and moved to New York City to find her way in the graphic-design world. She continues to serve as the magazine’s creative director. Filio, now editor in chief, leads the magazine, which has increased its circulation to 5,000 copies. The Monday night editorial meetings, which used to attract 10 or 15 students, now draw more than 60. That means more chairs, larger rooms, and big success; the true mark of an original. —Sam Ginsburg
Nick stares in disbelief at the poor grade on his physics midterm. He bangs his fist against the chalkboard, throwing his test away as he storms out of the lecture hall. Moments later, his classmate Jessica crumples to the floor in tears, also devastated by her disappointing exam results. Then the guitar riffs pick up, and rock star Jakob Dylan croons: “When I make it across, you could make it, too. If you let someone help you.”
So begins the plot of the study-inspiring music video directed by Pitt physics professor Jeremy Levy titled “Is it love, or a lot of right answers?” The five-minute video stars two of Levy’s students, Pitt sophomore Nick DeStefino and junior Jessica DeAngelo. In the fictional film story, Nick and Jessica attend a study session run by an undergraduate teaching assistant who tutors struggling students. Afterward, they begin to solve homework problems together, partner on lab projects—and yes, even fall in love!
Test time comes again, and the extra help and hard work pay off. Nick dances in circles around Jessica, and Physics 0110 ends happily ever after.
Levy produced the clip for the popular video-sharing Web site YouTube to encourage students to use the academic help offered by his undergraduate teaching assistants. “I wanted to motivate my students to use all of the resources that are available to help them perform better,” says Levy, who has been recognized by Pitt with Chancellor’s Distinguished Awards in both teaching and research.
The physics professor is an expert in nanoelectronics, and he’s working to build the world’s first quantum computer. Yet he is no stranger to the world of film. While a youngster, Levy appeared in the Emmy Award-winning TV miniseries Holocaust and in the Hollywood movie Rich Kids. His father, Edmond Levy, was an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. Today, the Pitt professor uses filmmaking as a tool for research and instruction.
Levy produces his own educational videos to show in class and post online. Each fall, he holds a contest in which his introductory physics students create one-minute spots for extra credit. Their work is judged by the class on its relevance to physics and its entertainment value. Recent submissions have spoofed hit TV shows and films such as Jackass, Saved by the Bell, and Spiderman.
Pre-pharmacy major DeAngelo says Levy’s innovative use of video in the classroom helps Internet-savvy students grapple with tough physics concepts through a medium they understand and appreciate. “It just gets everybody more involved and makes it really fun to go to class,” she says. —Jennifer Bails